Aboriginal Homelessness in Samson & Delilah

Samson & Delilah is a movie about the love story of two young Aboriginal people. They live in a remote Aboriginal community in the center of Australia. Warwick Thornton, through his touching film, addresses the issue of Aboriginal homelessness. In fact, homelessness is a crucial social issue in Australia today, as on any given night  1 in 200 indigenous Australians are homeless according to the Homelessness Australia oganization.

The two young protagonists of the film.
credit: Ferdy on Films

Samson is a teenager who lives in a wrecked shelter with his older brother who plays reggae music with his band all day. Samson sniffs petrol in order to overcome his hunger and his boredom. He is interested in Delilah who lives in the same community with her grandmother. Unfortunately, after a tragic event, Samson and Delilah will flee their community and will enter the ruthless “white” world. They will face the indifference and the racism of the Australian society. They will be homeless for a period of time and will have to live under a bridge with nothing more than their mutual love.

Warwick Thornton’s movie addresses the chronic social issues of drug abuse, poverty and homelessness in a remote Aboriginal community.

Indigenous Homelessness in Numbers

The concept of homelessness varies across the different communities of Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definition of homelessness has been developed for application to the general population in Australia. However, ABS supports that although indigenous Australians are overrepresented in the reports about homelessness according to this definition, there are likely to be additional aspects to homelessness from an indigenous perspective that the definition does not currently adequately capture. For instance, this perspective may relate to different values, beliefs and spiritual connection with the land. Some Aboriginal people choose not to live in conventional “homes” for extended periods, and may not regard themselves as “homeless”.

According to the Homelessness Australia organization (HA), the issue of homelessness in Aboriginal communities cannot be understood if we don’t take into consideration the legacy of colonization and dispossession. A tragic history of physical and cultural displacement led to the fact that Aboriginal people face an increased risk of homelessness.

According to the statistics of HA for 2010 and 2011, indigenous Australians represented around 2.4% of the population of the country but they represented at the same time 10% of the homeless people.  The situation was even worse outside cities. In rural areas where indigenous people represented the majority of service users and in remote areas, where they were eighty-eight percent of service users, homelessness was much higher.  In addition to this, indigenous people represented 16% of “rough sleepers” (someone who sleeps or lives outside because he has no home) and 20% of people living temporarily in homeless services. In the Northern Territory, where the film Samson & Delilah takes place, Aboriginal people represented 63% of homeless service users.

Being Homeless: An Australian Specificity 

« Gonzo » from the movie « Samson and Delilah »
credit: WordPress

Even if homelessness is a major issue for the whole Australian society, as 1 in 200 Australians are experiencing homelessness according to HA, Aboriginal people hold a prime position in this phenomenon. According to the census homelessness figures of 2011, in the Northern Territory, where also Warwick Thornton grew up, the rate of homelessness was the highest (731 per 10,000 persons).

Moreover the causes of the indigenous homelessness go back to the era of colonization.  The native inhabitants were denied any right to land by the colonialists.  Reserves were created for Aboriginal people and resettlements occurred so that the state authority could better control them. These displacements and dispossessions were very painful for indigenous people as they had a great impact on their lifestyles and disturbed their social systems.

Furthermore, they had to leave their homeland and this created a spiritual homelessness because of the strong bonds that Aboriginal people have with the land. Many researchers have underlined the historical and emotional importance of the connection that Aboriginal people have with their land and the denial to give them property rights has led to the loss of control over their lives.

Another state decision that played a crucial role is the child removal policy that occurred approximately between 1909 and 1970. This policy gave extensive powers to state institutions over the lives of Aboriginal people. It authorized the removal of indigenous children, especially “half-caste” from their families and communities in order to resocialise and help them integrate the modern society. This policy was one more cause of destabilization for native Australians and in addition to this, there wasn’t any tangible improvement in the lives of the removed individuals compared to the non-removed ones. The fact that a generation of adults is missing in the movie can be considered as a reference to this cruel policy.

Nevertheless, the primary reason of indigenous homelessness is family violence and sexual abuse. 40% of the Aboriginal people who are in homeless assistance services are women escaping domestic violence according to HA. Furthermore, Ross S. Bailie, researcher on public health issues, claims that an important detail is the crowded housing conditions that exist in indigenous households. Specifically, too crowded housing conditions can lead to social stress which contributes to an increase of domestic violence.

Possible solutions

Eight homeless people in a squat in Northbridge, Perth, Western Australia, 2008
credit: National Library of Australia

Despite the important efforts that the Australian state has done through the years to correct its older ruthless policies, the situation hasn’t improved. The initiative of the Federal government with the white paper (The Road Home) in 2008, which aims to halve homelessness by 2020, is a positive start. However, indigenous Australians still suffer from less adequate and affordable housing than any other social group.

The roots of this phenomenon, according to Professor Max Neutze, are poverty, the gap between values over housing by the more collectively oriented Aboriginal people and the lack of control over the houses they have been provided for them.

A response to these problems of housing organizations could be an umbrella organization. It would ensure both rent collection and accountability to funding governments and community control over housing design and management.

All in all, according to a recent report of HA, Aboriginal homelessness should be faced with a national action plan on homelessness. Indigenous communities must be able to collaborate directly and locally with state organizations, in an appropriate cultural way, in order to facilitate the accommodation of these communities. It is also crucial that more indigenous people manage and work in the homeless assistance services so that Aboriginal people like Samson and Delilah can be followed and helped by persons who understand them and who may have even been in their situation sometime in their life.

Works Cited:

–          Bailie Ross S., Wayte  Kayli J.:  “Housing and health in Indigenous communities: Key issues for housing and health improvement in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities”, Australian Journal of Rural Health Volume 14, Issue 5, pages 178–183, October 2006

–          Behrendt Larissa: “Achieving Social Justice: Indigenous Rights and Australia’s Future”,  The Federation Press, 2003

–          Neutze Max: « Housing for Indigenous Australians », Housing Studies, Volume15, Issue 4, 2000

–          Shelter SA – Housing: a basic human right: “Aboriginal Homelessness & Housing Support Branch”, URL: http://www.sheltersa.asn.au/branches/aboriginal-homelessness/

–          Australian Bureau of Statistics : “FACTSHEET: Homelessness – in concept and in some measurement contexts”, URL:http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/4922.0Main%20Features32012?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4922.0&issue=2012&num=&view=

–          Homelessness Australia:” Homelessness Australia Fact Sheets”, URL: http://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/index.php/about-homelessness/fact-sheets

–          Australian Bureau of Statistics : “Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2011”, URL:http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/latestProducts/2049.0Media%20Release12011

–          Street Smart – Helping the Homeless: “About Homelessness”, URL: http://www.streetsmartaustralia.org/homelessness

 –          Troy P. Foreword. In: ReadP, ed. Settlement: “A History of Australian Indigenous Housing.” Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2000; v–vi.

–          ABC: “Australia’s hidden homelessness presents a growing problem”, URL: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-23/australias-hidden-homelessness-presents-a-growing/4976496

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